BANGKOK – Lost in Thailand, a small-budget comedy made with only 20 million yuan (US$3.1 million), has become a dark horse in the competitive year-end season.
It sold a stunning 300 million yuan in five days since its premiere on December 12, marking the highest-grossing first-week box office for a domestic film ever, and dwarfing hyped blockbusters in the same season, such as The Last Supper and Back to 1942.
The audiences’ hunger for real entertainment in the festive year-end is obvious. But the season started with two depressing films, Back to 1942 – about a famine in which 3 million people died – and The Last Supper, about a dictator’s ruthlessness.
Lost in Thailand came at the right time, but the more important reason for its popular and critical acclaim lies in a solid story, in which characters talk and act like real people.
The film follows a businessman’s trip to Thailand, where he meets an overly talkative and extremely optimistic pancake maker, who turns his trip into one hilarious misadventure to another. It tickles the viewer’s funny bone not merely because of the slapstick jokes copied from the Internet, like in the case of most comedies in China nowadays, but because of the way the story develops.
There is no A-list star, special effect, or kung fu in the film. For a long time, the three elements are the traditional pillars propping up strong box office performance.
Since the success of Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggersabout 10 years ago, Chinese audiences have seen such “typical” Chinese blockbusters year after year. Unfortunately, behind the visual lavishness is often a flimsy story that few could relate to.
Such films are losing their mojo after years of repetition. So when a different type of film, especially a quality one shows up, it easily captures audience attention.
The film also reminds those who rush to make 3-D or IMAX films that a special format movie does not ensure its success.
Although the ticket is better priced, how many viewers it attracts still depends on the story.
Furthermore, it is an unfortunate fact that domestic films so far cannot compete with Hollywood works in terms of visual effects and grandness of scenes. The most probable approach to find their comparative advantage is to tell local stories that relate to ordinary audiences, in which Lost in Thailand has done a good job.
In addition, the success of Lost in Thailand suggests that to cater to an overseas market is not the only approach to win at box office.
A myth in the Chinese film industry for years is that only blockbusters with the universal language of action and internationally acclaimed stars can win over a wide audience, including those overseas, and to break even with their big budget.
Lost in Thailand, however, has shown that a local, contemporary story can create big proceeds at box office, too.
The film’s box office performance has demonstrated that the local market has more potential than many assume.
The film is far from being perfect. Neither is it a great comedy. But it is a qualified and solid genre film, compared to many other Chinese films, and therefore, it definitely deserves popular and critical acknowledgements.